Jack and Lem’s Excellent European Adventure, Summer 1937

By Maryrose Grossman, Audiovisual Reference Archivist

On June 30, 1937 John F. ”Jack” Kennedy embarked on a two-and-a-half-month tour of Europe with his friend Kirk LeMoyne “Lem” Billings aboard the S.S. Washington. They both kept diaries documenting, in words and pictures, their adventures, mishaps, and observations along the way.

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JFKPP-001-012-p0005. From: “Diary, European trip, 1937: 1 July-3 September”.

GOOD TIMES

Both Jack and Lem encountered many friends and acquaintances on holiday, including a number of “Johnny Harvards” and an “old Choatie” or two on the boat and along their journey. In addition to visiting many historic sites, they enjoyed a good amount of high jinks.

LEM:  July 19 – Amboise, Chenonceau – Angoulême   It [Chambord] is really an amazingly impenetrable fort – The walls are tremendously high & even today with modern warfare –  an army would have trouble taking it.

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PCP00046N. John F. Kennedy at the Château de Chambord, France, 19 July 1937, President’s Collection Photographs.

JACK:  July 23 – Friday St. Jean-de-Luz   Gary Cooper speaking French as well as the Indians is worth the price of admission.

LEM:  July 26 – Angoulême – Jean de Luz   We went to a movie in French – were plenty amused to hear Pat O’Brien spouting French.

LEM:  July 29 Carcassonne   We stopped at the old medieval town Carcassonne, which is still in perfect condition. It was terribly interesting as people still live inside the walls on crowded little streets, and even they and their horses look medieval.

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PCP00035N. John F. Kennedy at Carcassonne, France, 29 July 1937,
President’s Collection Photographs. Lem’s caption: “Human fly – Carcassonne”.

LEM:  July 31 – Cannes & Monte Carlo   Awoke very late – but very unhappy – Kennedy did a dying act on the beach as shown in the photograph!

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PX93-34: 1. John F. Kennedy in Cannes, France, 31 July 1937.

JACK:  August 4   Went thru the tower of Pisa and the Baptistery which has an echo like an organ…

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PX-93-34: 2. John F. Kennedy at the Tower of Pisa in Pisa, Italy,
4 August 1937. Lem’s caption: “…the leaning towers of Pisa & Kennedy”.

LEM:  August 15 – Venice We also got our pictures formally taken with the pigeons altho we had a hard time making them have any part of Kennedy or the food he offered them.

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PCP00031N. John F. Kennedy at the Plaza de San Marco in Venice, Italy, 15 August 1937,
President’s Collection Photographs. Lem’s caption: “Kennedy & the only pigeon he could attract”.

LEM:  August 22 – Köln – Amsterdam   Kennedy spends a great deal of his time juggling – so I finally took his picture during the process.

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PCP00030N. John F. Kennedy juggling in Nuremberg, Germany, 20 August 1937,
President’s Collection Photographs. Lem’s caption: “Jugglin’ Jack”.

THE CAR

Jack’s car made the trip to Europe, too, and was the primary means of transportation throughout. Lem chronicled their adventures with the vehicle, which clearly added levity, if also frustration, to their travels.

LEM:  June 30 – July 7 – 1937  We arrived in Harve [sic] July 7th – and after watching all of the fenders of Jack’s car get scratched – we started on our trip.

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PCP00056N. John F. Kennedy in the Hague, Netherlands, 24 August 1937,
President’s Collection Photographs.

LEM:  July 10 – Paris   We are very careful to leave the car around the block & then apply for rooms looking as poverty stricken as possible.

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PCP00048N. Lem Billings in Cannes, France, 30 July 1937,
President’s Collection Photographs.

LEM:  August 8 – Rome – Pompeii – Vesuvius   On the way up V we picked up two Germans – who turned out to be soldiers – They were wonderful guys – despite the handicap of not being able to speak anything but German – Amid much cursing & sputtering from the car we finally reached the top.

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PCP00054N. John F. Kennedy and two German soldiers near Mt. Vesuvius, Italy,
8 August 1937, President’s Collection Photographs.

LEM:  August 26 – Calais – London – Canterbury   Up early as there was so darned much noise right under my window from the kitchen – hurried the car over to the dock at 10:30 as I’d been told … – had to wait for the slow auto carrier for almost 2 hours to Dover and it took another hour to get thru the very strict English customs.

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PCP00039N. Dover, England, 26 August 1937, President’s Collection Photographs.

POLITICAL OBSERVATIONS AND IMPENDING WAR

Jack and Lem were well aware of the relatively recent events of World War I and of the geopolitical tensions brewing among the European nations they visited. Their diary entries, written before the onset of World War II, demonstrated a mixture of astuteness and naivete,  with a tendency to stereotype.

JACK:  July 9 Paris   The general impression seems that while they really like Roosevelt, his type of government would not succeed in a country like France which seems to lack the ability of seeing a problem as a whole… The general impression also seems to be that there will not be a war in the near future and that France is much too well prepared for Germany. The permanence of the alliance of Germany and Italy is also questionable.

LEM:  July 24  St. Jean de Luz   St. Jean de Luz is very definitely a Franco stronghold & and we are getting completely the Franco point of view.

LEM:  July 26 – St. Jean de Luz – Bullfight   Extremely interesting, but terribly cruel… It is not hard to believe the stories about the atrocities in Spain, after seeing a bullfight. These southern French & Spaniards are a very cruel lot.

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From PX93-34. Postcards of bullfights in southern France, Lem Billings scrapbook, 1937.

LEM:  August 2 – Savona – Genoa – Milan   Pictures of Mussolini everywhere – even painted on the walls of houses – All along the roads he has painted his commands – which seem to consist mostly of “obey”.

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From PX93-34. Postcard of Benito Mussolini, Lem Billings scrapbook, 1937. Lem’s caption: “The Big Muss”.

LEM:  August 4 – Piacenza – Pisa   We picked up a German boy by the name of Martin on the way to Pisa. Very interesting as he was definitely anti-Hitler – altho he couldn’t tell us much about it. He also told us how very much the Germans hate the Russians. It looks like the next war will come from that direction, especially as England and the rest of Europe seem to be drawing away from Russia.

In a short matter of time, comments such as the following would prove chilling:

JACK:  August 10 Tuesday Rome In the afternoon went to see Mr. Cortesi – The N. Y. Times man in Rome. He was very interesting and gave me some good points. Said Fascism wasn’t that unfair to the worker – in fact under it he got many advantages – …he said chief danger of a war was that someone would call Italy’s or Germany’s bluff – more Germany than Italy as Italy had to fight Ethiopia. Spoke of Fascism being out and out socialism. Said Europe was too well prepared for war now – in contrast to 1914.

LEM:  August 17 – Innsbruck – Munich   Hitler seems very popular here – you can’t help but like a dictator when you are in his own country – as you hear so many wonderful things about him and really not too many bad things – Hitler’s strongest weapon seems to be his very efficient propaganda.

THE DOG

Jack and Lem were intent on getting a dog for Olive Hawley, a Kennedy family friend who was in London with other Kennedy family members. Jack and Lem were to visit London, meet up with everyone, and then give the dog to Olive, but alas, it was not to be. Interestingly, Jack and Lem had different names for the dog.

JACK:  August 19 – Thursday Munich – Nuremberg   …bought Offie, a dachshund of great beauty for $8.00 as a present for Olive. Immediately got hay fever etc. so it looks like the odds are about 8-1 toward Offie getting to America.

LEM:   August 20 – Nuremberg – Wurstenberg   We have been trying for some time to get a dachshund for Olive – but so far haven’t been able to. We left for Wurstenberg after lunch & continued our search all along the road for a dog, & went on many a wild goose chase. – We finally bought one in Wurstenberg for $8 which we named “Dunker” – after the only German word we knew – we think him a thing of great beauty.

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PCP00029N. John F. Kennedy and Lem Billings with the dog Dunker/Offie in the Hague, Netherlands, 24 August 1937, President’s Collection Photographs.

LEM:  August 24 – Hague – Antwerp – Ghent   Went over to the American Express the first thing in the morning – we found a pretty decent fellow there who said he’d like to buy the hound for about $3 – a loss of $5 for us. We thought it over a bit – and looked around the Hague in the meanwhile with a student who did it gratis. Finally we decided to sell Dunker & parted with him very unwillingly, – After taking many last shot pictures.

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PX93-34-d. Photos of “The Dunker,” etc., Lem Billings scrapbook, 1937.
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PX93-34-h. Photos of the dog, Dunker/Offie, Lem Billings scrapbook, 1937.

THE LAST LEG

The tour ended in England and Scotland, where Jack and Lem visited with family and friends and went shopping in preparation for the upcoming academic year.

Both were worn out from their European adventure. Lem had caught a cold in July by swimming in the Loire River at Chenonceau and Jack developed his own problems in Southampton on August 27 while saying goodbye to his mother and siblings Joe and Kick as they departed for America.

LEM:  August 27 – London – South Hampton [sic]   Kennedy mixed tomato juice & plenty of chocolate in their cabin & thus going back on the train felt pretty queer – by the time we reached London he was covered with hives –

Jack and Lem sailed out of Southampton on September 10 and were back on U.S. soil on September 16.

LEM:  September 16   So at last I’m back to the U.S.A after a wonderful trip – I’m sorry as the devil it’s over.

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